Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Byblos and Tripoli (the lesser of the famous ones)

We had overstayed our welcome in Beirut and thought we should head northbound. The question was how? The idea of dragging around luggage on a bus or service taxi had little appeal. Renting a car seemed more practical. We checked out of the Port View Hotel and caught an aging diesel chirping Mercedes to a row of car rental cubicles bunched together at the airport. With keys in had we piled in the luggage in the trunck and started heading north up the coast to the picturesque Jounieh in search of Jeita Grotto. Leaving the airport in southern Beirut  we passed a row proudly displayed Hezbollah, Amal Movement, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, and Ayatollah Khomenin signs posted along the median..   

With Arabic music playing and the a/c cranked, we patted ourselves on the back for renting a car. The question is how do we get to where we are going? On the tip of Jounieh we were on the lookout for any sign pointing to the grotto. The exit took us up the hill through a series of small towns and at some point in Jeita the road splits and you descend into the Nahr al-Kalb valley. You know you're on the right path once you pass the hall of fame sign then a house that looks like Noah's Ark halfway into the valley. 

A few meters later you arrive at two cement  gnome like sculptures and a group of guys attempting the roadblock approach with flags trying to make you pull over to their makeshift olives and honey storefront.  

Jeita Grotto is Lebanon's number one tourist attraction and is competing for a spot as one of the new seven wonders of the world. There are two limestone caves, the upper and lower. The lower one involves a 10 minute boat ride except winter it is closed due to high water levels. The underground river is also the souse of fresh drinkable water. Thinking of bringing your camera? Don't! There is a strict policy prohibiting cameras and thus I've resorted to "borrowing" images off the internet.

The upper cave stretches almost 7,000 feet (1.3 miles) with a walkway that stops visitors at the half-mile mark.  For me that was the point where the oxygen levels were getting low. Impressive and understandable why this attraction is a must see. Does it qualify for be one of the new 7 wonders of the world? Maybe so. You can check out their competition by clicking here

When Santa isn't busy entertaining children on his lap he vacations on the side of the road thrusting his hips, shaking a cane and puffing on a water pipe blowing out burnt motor oil from his mouth. Perhaps also bidding for the runner up spot for as a wonder of the world. 

Next on the list was the seaside town of Byblos also known and spelled as Jbail, Jbeil, Gebal, Gibelet. The fishing harbor is surrounded by fancy restaurants including Pepe's which was filled with photos of bygone celebrities and enough bric-a-brac to keep this ADD author busy for hours. 

The Crusader's Fortress built in the 12th century. Want a 360 view of it click here. The grounds include temples, city ramparts, deep wells, tombs, and Roman columns and amphitheater by the sea.

I'm guessing not a 12th century structure.

While walking around hardly any signs were visible making us privy to what we were observing. The one we did spot was on the edge of a deep well and there was no way in hell we were about to climb down there.

For some reason the song Cheaters Never Win by Love Committee popped into my head the moment we stumbled upon this sculpture. Really love the placement of the broken head bust.

City ramparts with the Roman era columns in the background.

In the old souq/market area of Byblos tucked along a narrow path lays Memoire Du Temps hosting 100,000,000 (yes one hundred million) year old extinct fish fossils. The fossils were discovered in the family owned quarry and many of the prize pieces are prominently displayed in museum collections around the globe. At the workshop/showroom/store you can see the owner and his nephew work away while telling you the histories about the fish. If you wish to own a piece of history you can do that for as little as $10 and it includes a certificate of authenticity. To learn and see more click here.     
This piece is about 4 feet in length. It looks like a string ray meets a jellyfish with a jigger of shark. At first spending the night in Byblos sounded like a good idea until we saw a row or more like a traffic jam of nice cars filled with hungry people salivating at the thought of a Sunday dinner. It was our cue to head further north before the sun faded into the Mediterranean.  
In theory Tripoli sounded like a good idea. We should have known better with the traffic going into the center. Once we reached the Old City it was like warping back to Cairo. What a difference an hour ride makes; the scene in Tripoli couldn't have been more different. The reason for leaving Egypt was to get away from the chaos, noise, and trash on the streets and here we were back in the middle of it. We felt compelled to find a room and suck it up for the evening. Our guide book it mentioned Hotel Koura complete with a reclining grandma in the living room. Sure enough we walked up the stairs to find grandma hanging out. The super friendly and helpful owner said we were out of luck and steered us to a couple of other places including the Palace Hotel. Once you get past the breast feeding teenage mothers and the begging children at the foot of the stairs to the Palace it is all downhill from there. Dingy rooms and stained sheets with the older European man ordering his team of resident prepubescent boys to get out of our way. Sonny thought we should start driving towards the area Al-Mina. He spotted a hotel in the guidebook that sounded promising but finding it was proved to be impossible. We inquired about directions several times to no avail and the last person we asked climbed into the backseat of our car. Our new passenger was older lady who spoke six languages and talked us into staying at monastery down the street instead. She would be our saving grace. After she secured our rooms and before we could thank her she disappeared into the dark. Once we got settled it was time for a pre-dinner beverages at Newlo's Pub and Snack (see photo above by Sonny). The decor included LP records on the wall, Spanish music, a Freemason woodcarving, and bottomless bowls of puffy snacks.      
Obviously we didn't consume enough puffy snacks, carrots, nuts, and beverages at Newlo's so we went out for a late dinner. I don't recall the name of the area in Al-Mina but the streets were narrow and civilized. We poked our heads into a couple of restaurants and decided on Hollywood. There were two other patrons seated at a table stacked full of half eaten dishes, a near empty bottle of Johnny Walker Red, and a freshly opened bottle of Arak (anise flavored distilled spirit akin to Ouzo and Raki). They were kind enough to pour me a glass Arak and insistent that I try his fish plate as he put some in his hand and fed me.

The man pictured above is the proprietor/cook/waiter/cashier of Hollywood. There was no menu, he told us to have a seat and he was going to make us "small fish." Out came a bottle of wine, water, and chicken livers. Later the cheese, salads, and mezes (hummus, etc) arrived. A giant plate of about 20 fish was next and we ended with exotic fruits. Two hours later we rolled back to the monastery.  
The hallway to our rooms. The rooms were large, spacious, clean, and above all quiet.

A little bit of green.

I think Sonny was expecting to be struck down by lightning, better luck next time.

My new truck!
Snoory come home.

Check Mark means proper dress and an X means improper dress. Tripoli is slightly more conservative.





Toobaco shoes for the little ones.

We saw images all over Lebanon of the popular former Prime Minister Rafic Hairi who was assassinated on Feburary14, 2005. There has been an ongoing Special Tribunal investigation and is due to deliver a verdict by the end of 2010. There is a suggestion that Hezbollah is behind the murder and their leaders deny any links to it. Hezbollah has stated that the investigation is a US/Israel plot to upset the balance of Lebanon and has vowed there will be consequences if the group is linked. 

Bye bye Tripoli...

...and hello mountains
Stay tuned as we take our misadventures east into the mountains and valley.

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